In defence of our agency

There are plenty of intelligent, hard-working officers in the Environment Agency and in Defra. It is the structure and culture that are wrong, writes Bill Butterworth

Those in the front line of delivering services in the waste and recycling industry might be forgiven for thinking that the worst thing that ever happened to our environment is our Environment Agency.

There is undoubtedly unnecessary and misguided restriction, and most things take far too long. However, this is not always the case, and our agency works within rules framed by our Defra.

As an example, take an actual quote from a senior, technologically capable and sensible agency officer. The case in question was a request for permission to recycle sodium carbonate to agricultural land. The officer accepted that there would be agricultural benefit and it was safe but felt he had to reject the request for composting because the material was not “biodegradable” (within the regulation definition of the word, rather than science) and which the regulations demand.

Rejected request

He also had to reject the request to direct spread because the material is not on Table 2 of Schedule 3 of the Waste Management Licensing Regulations (WMLR). Now, this material would be better than sodium chloride (which has chlorine in the molecule) which is used as a fertiliser for the sugar beet crop. The inescapable and logical conclusion must be that the environment, our environment, is worst off because of the intervention of the regulator.

The officer also concluded that “we both know there are many more wastes capable of conferring agricultural benefit if spread than are currently listed in the exemption. However, we have to work within the constraints of the legislation as it stands”. Now, what is clear is that the officer’s duty is to follow the rules laid down by Defra. So, in this case, it is not our agency’s doing; it is Defra who writes these regulations.

Experience of agency officers – from head office employees to the action of men and women officers in the field – is that they will privately say that the whole of the exemption rules (under Schedule 3 of the WMLR) and much of the site-licensing rules should not just be “tidied up”, they should be thrown out and we should start again. The rules are an illogical and restricting mess, reminiscent of Lilliput.

Clearly, Defra is, in this case, inhibiting recycling. This rule is not imposed by the EU, it is homegrown. There are hundreds of such cases of material which go to landfill or illegal disposal because of this sort of restriction. There are many companies and individuals who will support the view that regulation is the biggest barrier we have to dramatically expanding safe and sensible recycling to land at lower cost. The majority of our wastes are high-volume and low-value. Therefore the only sustainable route to recycling is to use on the land, preferably on a proximity basis. Not only does the present regulating regime not encourage that, it definitely obstructs much safe recycling.

Some of these issues have been raised directly with the minister via, of course, an MP (in this case, the hard-working constituency MP and Conservative, Michael Ancram). A letter over Eric Morley’s signature said: “If someone disagrees with the view that the Environment Agency, in its role as the competent authority, reaches on whether a particular substance is waste, then I can advise that the person concerned obtains his own legal advice and acts on the basis of it.

“Neither I nor my department’s officials has a role as an arbitrator where there is

a disagreement with the agency.” At a later date, an officer in the Waste Management Licensing and Enforcement Unit confirmed exactly this total avoidance of responsibility in Defra.

Further from reality

Not even if the agency is wrong? Not even if they are irresponsible? Who is our agency responsible to? Clearly, it’s not parliament. Go to court where the technical knowledge is ever further removed from reality and spend even more time and cash getting nowhere? Why do Defra officials not listen to clear evidence that things are wrong? Who is getting paid for doing less than a helpful job in the first place and not sorting out the difficulties when the combined operation of the legislators and regulators is clearly less than adequate, technically just wrong, and whose action is not just holding up recycling, but actually damaging the environment?

In a sensible society, looking to actively develop sustainability, the legislators and regulators have two duties. The first is to control the bad guys. Nobody would sensibly argue against that. We do need regulation and every responsible company and business does actually agree with that.

Enabling the good guys

The second duty is to enable the good guys. This is not done by allowing people to write regulations, setting up committees and a multi-layer bureaucracy, offering grants through WRAP, or allowing the Treasury to offer tax incentives – especially if the people involved have little or no technical training and no practical experience on the ground. It can only be done economically and effectively by empowering the good guys. There are plenty of intelligent, hard-working and helpful officers (the majority in fact) in our agency and in Defra. It is the structure and culture that are wrong.

There is a statistic which underlines the restrictive structure which staff operate under. There are 53 words in the Lord’s Prayer, 229 in the Ten Commandments and 132 in the paragraph 12 exemption (used for small-scale on-farm composting) of Schedule 3 of the Waste management Licensing Regulations. So, if brevity is a guide to longevity, paragraph 12 (frozen from changes to all the other exemptions introduced on 1 July 2005) is in the right class.

Now, there are Notes for Guidance from agency head office to help officers on the ground to apply the 132 words in Paragraph 12. We are on the eighth set (officers will have, of course, read the other seven).

The current set has 35,709 words. An officer on the ground is a general practitioner and may have over a hundred technologies to deal with, presumably with their own set of Notes for Guidance. The officer cannot reasonably cope with the paperwork. The system is just not fair on them.

These officers need to be allowed to use the knowledge which exists in the people who actually do the job, more effectively. It does, of course, have to be recognised that some of the people in industry are also not to be trusted with our environment.

However, the majority are sensible, caring people, who have the necessary knowledge, want to do a sustainable job and are trustable. We need to get rid of “us and them” and form much better informed, faster partnerships between industry and government and get on with the job, quickly.

By the way, notice at the beginning of this article, it talked of our agency and our Defra. It isn’t the government. It is our government. The good guys are getting a bit tired of systems that are not based on practical knowledge, not on common sense, and take too long.

The quote used in this article is from a real officer. The name is known but withheld from print for professional reasons. Many of the other statements are from industry figures who prefer not to be quoted by name. Sad, isn’t it?

Bill Butterworth is an agricultural scientist working in recycling to land. He works closely with the Environment Agency on a day-to-day basis and has worked on environmental matters all over the world in a career spanning over 40 years.

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